Are stem cell scientists sabotaging rivals' work?
By Andy Coghlan Would top-flight scientists stoop so low as to sabotage disclosure of rival research that threatens to scoop their own? Although short of proof, a group of senior stem cell researchers warn that it may be happening. They are calling for journal editors to be alert to referees who might abuse their position in the peer-review process to discredit or block rival research. “It’s all done in secret, so it’s very hard to gather information on this,” says Robin Lovell-Badge of the National Institute for Medical Research in London. He and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Japan, who famously reprogrammed ordinary cells to become similar to embryonic stem cells, are among 14 signatories to a letter of complaint sent in July 2009 to major scientific journals, including Nature and Science. Frustrated by the lack of response, some signatories decided to publicise the letter’s content more widely this week. The letter called on journals to publish anonymised comments from referees alongside published papers, so that the fairness and scientific validity of the comments can be judged by all, a practice already adopted by The EMBO Journal. “It is hard to get beyond anecdotal evidence of reviewers making extravagant demands,” says co-signatory Austin Smith at the University of Cambridge, also publicising the letter this week. “The more serious issue is that papers are getting through review in the same journals with serious holes, or interpretations that go way beyond the data,” he says. “Because all comments would be published, it would hopefully make biased or careless refereeing less common, and it would embarrass journals if people could spot biased or stupid comments,” says Lovell-Badge. The fact that only two signatories were from the US hinted that most disenchantment lies elsewhere, he adds. “There does seem to be this bias against groups from the rest of the world.” Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief at Nature, says The EMBO Journal model “is still on the table”, but says it’s up to journal editors to decide if referees’ demands for extra experiments are justified, and to spot referees who appear to be causing delays. More on these topics: